WASHINGTON — With the February opening of streetcar service along the 2.4-mile H Street-Benning Road corridor, Washington joined a national trend of major cities rebooting what was once considered an antiquated mode of urban transportation.
Far from being an exercise in nostalgia, the rekindled love affair with the streetcar is not only bringing public transportation to under-served areas, but also is aimed at stimulating economic growth in key commercial districts.
Since 2000, seven major cities in the United States have installed streetcars. Besides Washington, the cities are Seattle, Portland, Ore., Salt Lake City, Dallas, Tucson, Ariz., and Atlanta. Several others are in the planning or construction phases.
All seven systems are modern, second-generation streetcars on new lines, not part of so-called “legacy” systems that in some cases, like New Orleans and San Francisco, have been running for more than a century. Nor are the second-generation streetcars throwbacks to a bygone age, such as Charlotte, N.C.’s CityLYNX Gold Line, which opened in 2015 using replica historic streetcar models known as heritage cars (they are slated to be replaced in about three years).
Streetcars are a type of “light rail” service. Each system utilizes single cars that run along city streets on tracks, usually in mixed traffic, as opposed to exclusive rights of way.
Each of the new DC Streetcar vehicles are 66 feet long and eight feet wide, capable of holding approximately 157 passengers.
The streetcar service runs Monday through Thursday from 6 a.m.to midnight and on Friday and Saturday until 2 a.m., with no current Sunday service. It will be free to all riders for the first few months of its introductory period.
An average weekday in April saw 2,285 passengers on the DC Streetcar. Saturday ridership averaged 3,235.
Washington had streetcars for 100 years, from 1862 until 1962. Initially drawn by horses, the cars switched to electric power in 1888.
Only a few years after the last streetcar rumbled down Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington began construction on a new heavy rail/subway system known as Metrorail, administered by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), which also runs the regional bus system.
“From 1890 to 1930, the streetcar was prevalent throughout urban America before going through a decline the following 40 years with the advent of the automotive age,” said Art Guzzetti, vice president of policy at the American Public Transportation Association.
Mass transit networks incorporating commuter railroads, subways and bus systems accompanied the expanded use of cars.
But streetcars like Washington’s are filling in transit gaps. The H Street segment is envisioned as the first part of a larger streetcar system that the District Department of Transportation(DDOT) plans to construct in coming years.
In an era with diverse mass transit options in cities throughout the country, the need for streetcars might not be as apparent to the casual commuter. But Guzzetti said that streetcars offer added value to urban transit.
“The premise is to provide the ridership capacity of a larger train for a manageable route of a bus service,” Guzzetti explained.
Unlike the farther reaches of light rail and heavy rail networks that connect suburbs to central cities, streetcars “will circulate around downtown or commercial districts,” said Guzzetti.
Experts argue that there is also a psychological boost, as well as potential increases in real estate values, in communities that become part of a streetcar system.
“A streetcar, or trolley, communicates a message of permanence,” said Ken Rucker, president of the National Capital Trolley Museum. “The tangibility of tracks expresses commitment to an individual transit corridor.”
Portland began operating replica vintage streetcars since 1991. But when it came time to replace them, the city decided to buy modern cars that were equivalent in expense but higher-tech.
The Pacific Northwest city opened its new line in 2001, becoming the first North American city to have a second-generation streetcar system.
“The city of Portland, as well as several prominent business owners and developers, saw a need to also provide circulation within the core of Portland, as there was not the high capacity, permanent transit available once you were downtown,” said Julie Gustafson, spokesperson for Portland Streetcar.
Using the same Czech-inspired United Streetcar (now built by Oregon Iron Works) vehicle brand as Washington would later implement, Portland chose cars that are approximately 20 meters (more than 60 feet) long and eight feet wide, with low floors that allow for easy boarding and exits and are accessible to disabled passengers.
“City leaders saw what streetcar systems had done in the past as well as what they continue to do in Europe and believed that this vision fit well with the desire to increase density in the central city of Portland,” Gustafson said.
Fifteen years in, Portland Streetcar currently hosts an average ridership of 15,000 a week. As of December 2014, $4.5 billion worth of new development had sprung up along the line.
Washington’s plan was similar. In 2003, the city began plotting the streetcar system routes to serve several economically depressed neighborhoods.
The DC Streetcar website, states that “fixed rail lines have demonstrated they can be catalysts to attract investments in housing, retail and commercial properties.”
According to the District of Columbia Transit Alternatives Analysis published in 2005, traffic was another factor. The bus services in particular, not ideal for transporting heavy amounts of people through active thoroughfares, thus,contributing to further congestion.
Although Washington has had Metrorail and bus service, both were reaching their maximum capacities.
The current line runs through slowly gentrifying areas east of Washington’s Union Station.
Because of delays over funding, planning and several changes in city administrations, the District’s Department of Transportation (DDOT) spent more than $200 million on the project.
Washington could possibly look to Atlanta for insight concerning the assets and liabilities of a modern streetcar system. The Georgia capital opened its streetcars in December 2014, 65 years after closing its original streetcar network.
“The Atlanta Streetcar project has received the majority of its subsidization from city and federal governments, while the downtown business community has also pitched in with a total commitment of $20 million over 20 years, including $6 million towards construction costs,” said A.J. Robinson, president of the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District.
So far, the Atlanta Streetcar makes a 2.7-mile loop through downtown. The addition to the city’s transit network has boosted real estate values, increased tax revenues and helped create jobs, Robinson said.
“We’re tracking more than $2 billion dollars of new and planned real estate investment within a 5-minute walk of the track alignment,” he said.
“Many businesses have invested in new renovations to area real estate right around the time it was announced that the city would be moving forward with the streetcar,” Robinson added.
Atlanta has dealt with safety issues, instances of the homeless taking shelter in the cars, and recent ridership drops as the streetcars started collecting fares at the beginning of this year.
“We don’t have space in the urban core to support more or altered bus routes,” said Robinson.
“Atlanta is historically a car-dominated community,” he added. “To see this kind of innovation in transit is something new.”
New York City has recently proposed joining this trend, with Mayor Bill de Blasio formally unveiling a plan in February to build a new streetcar line dubbed the BQX: the Brooklyn-Queens Connector that is supposed to connect the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens.
The line would run on a 16-mile circuit along the East River waterfront, which lacks sufficient access to public transportation. The streetcar would cost about $2.5 billion, far cheaper than digging a new subway line through the densely populated boroughs.
“The BQX will be a state-of-the art streetcar that…has the potential to generate over $25 billion dollars of economic activity for our city over 30 years,” de Blasio said.
Unlike some other northeastern cities,, New York had shut down its last streetcars by the 1950s for mass transit options that addressed its high-density sprawl. Competition from the car and bus, as well as other factors, helped kill the city’s once-ubiquitous streetcars.
But cities such as Boston and Philadelphia were able to preserve their streetcars, integrating them with their heavy rail and subway systems.
Philadelphia’s Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA), which includes legacy and heritage vehicles, boasts the nation’s largest streetcar system by route mileage. Its eight legacy streetcar routes (two of which venture out into the suburbs) are unique in that “they operate as a hybrid of trolley and high-capacity commuter rail,” according to SEPTA’s director of innovation, Erik Johanson.
“Although they have their right-of-ways the majority of their trips, once they arrive in Center City they function as traditional trolley services like a bus on rails before funneling into subway tunnels,” Johanson explained.
Philadephia’s Girard Avenue Line is the city’s only heritage line, using rebuilt 1947 PCC II-type streetcars.
“We are actually looking to modernize many of our trolleys to meet current (disability) standards,” Johanson said. “One of our major goals is full accessibility throughout the system.”